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Offseason Primers: Carolina Panthers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Ron Rivera's first season as head coach in Carolina resulted in a 6-10 record, but there was plenty of optimism about a playoff run, in part because of the play of Cam Newton.

Instead, the team floundered early in Rivera's second season and finished with a 7-9 record, in part because of the play of Newton. Year 3 of the Rivera era could be the last in Carolina if the team doesn't post a winning record -- and you-know-who will be a huge factor.

2012 Touches Leaders
746 total touches (rush attempts + receptions)
DeAngelo Williams 186 (173 car., 13 rec.) 24.9%
Cam Newton 127 car. 17.0%
Jonathan Stewart 110 (93 car., 17 rec.) 14.8%
Mike Tolbert 81 (54 car., 27 rec.) 10.9%
Steve Smith 76 (73 rec., 3 car.) 10.2%
Greg Olsen 69 rec. 9.2%
Brandon LaFell 47 (44 rec., 3 car.) 6.3%
All Others 50 6.7%

The good news for Newton is that his play dramatically improved in the second half of the season, thanks to some tweaks in his game and a favorable schedule. He went from averaging a lousy 17.0 Fantasy points per game in his first seven games to 25.3 per game in his last nine. And for as big a deal as the Panthers' zone-read scheme was, he only scored on six such plays total (compared to 21 in a more standard formation). With many analysts believing defenses will have an answer for the zone-read in 2013, this should be viewed as good news.

And for the first time since his high school days, Newton will be in the same offensive scheme for the third straight year, albeit with a new play caller. Mike Shula replaces Rob Chudzinski as the Panthers offensive coordinator and he's expected to keep most if not all of Chudzinski's offense in place. While there might not be as much creativity as 'Chud' was able to infuse, it keeps Newton comfortable and confident, which is important as he continues to develop.

Newton already will enter 2013 with momentum from last year, but if the Panthers provide him with a good offensive line, he'll have the chance at some monster numbers. And the better he does, the better the Panthers will do. Newton could turn out to be a gem of a pick if he falls to the third round as many expect him to in Fantasy drafts.

DeAngelo Williams -- Offseason sleeper

2012 Target Leaders
490 pass attempts
Steve Smith 138 28.2%
Greg Olsen 104 21.2%
Brandon LaFell 76 15.5%
Louis Murphy 60 12.2%
Mike Tolbert 39 8.0%
Jonathan Stewart 23 4.7%
DeAngelo Williams 20 4.1%
All Others 30 6.1%

Let's be honest: No one's looking for Williams on Draft Day based on how he's done the last two years. He'll be on the wrong side of 30 when the season starts, his rushing average dipped on more carries in 2012 and it would have been practically a full yard lower than the 4.3 average he finished with if not for a 210-yard effort in a meaningless game at New Orleans in Week 17. But before you completely turn your back on Williams, know this: His usage has been a sizable factor in his production as he's failed to post big numbers in part because of a lack of opportunities. Here's proof: Williams has posted 10-plus Fantasy points in half of the 14 games with at least 12 carries he's had over the past three seasons. Make the magic number 13 carries and he's even more efficient, delivering 10-plus Fantasy points in 70 percent of his games. Now there are some fluky stats to help that number up (back-to-back games with 40-plus-yard touchdown receptions last year, for example), but he does not look slow nor does he display any significant decline in ability. If he gets the chance to escape Carolina and play with some consistency in an offense that doesn't let the quarterback hog goal-line work, there's potential for a 1,000-total-yard, eight-touchdown season.

Jonathan Stewart -- Sleeper

Expected 2013 Draft Averages
Cam Newton 20-30 overall
Steve Smith 65-75 overall
Jonathan Stewart 65-75 overall
DeAngelo Williams 75-90 overall
Greg Olsen 90-100 overall
Brandon LaFell Late-round pick
Mike Tolbert Late-round pick
Panthers DST Undrafted
Scenario A has the Panthers keeping DeAngelo Williams, muddying up what would otherwise be a delightful running back situation. Scenario B: The aforementioned delightful running back situation, where Williams is somewhere else and Stewart gets a decent amount of work every week. With a restructured contract in hand (proof the team wants him) and just 93 carries from a season ago, the 26-year-old stands to work as the primary rushing force in the Carolina offense. He was on his way there last year, getting 10-plus carries in six of nine games before hurting his ankle and ultimately having surgery. That's the same amount of 10-carry games he had in 2011, a sign the Panthers tried to lean on him more. There are obvious injury concerns with Stew but he's been a proven 1,000-total-yard guy in the past. The only catch would be touchdown production since he'd almost certainly lose out on goal-line work with Newton and Mike Tolbert in the fold. If Williams is out, Stewart should be in play as a 1,200-total-yard back, easily making him a worthy No. 3 running back.

Mike Tolbert -- Late-round flier

Aside from avoiding the Panthers running backs altogether, perhaps the best idea is to stick Tolbert on the back of your roster with a late pick. His first year in Carolina was gross -- only 54 carries, 27 receptions, 451 total yards and five of his seven touchdowns coming in the final three weeks of the season. But Tolbert split reps with two backs while seeing plenty of playing time as a fullback and a running back. If the Panthers send DeAngelo Williams packing, that should give Tolbert more touches. Throw in Jonathan Stewart's constant ankle and foot problems and one might envision Tolbert working as the full-time back at some point in 2012. At worst, an owner burns a late pick on Tolbert and dumps him after a couple of weeks. At best, Tolbert falls into a 15-touch role on a weekly basis. The risk in taking Tolbert late is low.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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Player News
Bears sign DE Austen Lane
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) The Bears have signed defensive end Austen Lane, Pro Football Talk reports.

Lane will fill the roster spot of defensive end Willie Young, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. Lane was with the Bears during the preseason but didn't survive the final cuts. He's managed three sacks in 30 career games.


Cardinals' Thomas starts practice 'shaky,' finishes 'pretty strong'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Cardinals coach Bruce Arians indicated that Week 17 starting quarterback Logan Thomas was "shaky" at the beginning of Wednesday's practice but finished "pretty strong" as he developed an understanding of where to throw his passes, ESPN.com reports.

"He's worked, fundamentally, extremely hard and gotten much better," Arians said. "But putting those fundamentals to use in the offense, that's two totally different things."

Thomas has just three days of practice before facing the 49ers in a game that has the possibility of landing his team with a first-round bye with a win and help from other results.

"It wasn't the greatest, but as it went on, it got better and better," Thomas added. "It just comes with reps and comes with time."

The Cardinals are a 6-point underdog in San Francisco Sunday.


Seahawks' Russell Okung, Max Unger practice Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung (lung) practiced in full Wednesday, while center Max Unger (ankle) was able to return to practice in a limited fashion.

Okung is on track to return in Week 17 after missing last week's game with a bruised lung. Unger hasn't played in any of the team's last five game due to a high ankle sprain. The Seahawks will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a win Sunday, and it's possible Unger suits up for the crucial game.

The Seahawks are a 12 1/2-point favorite at home against the Rams in Week 17.


Raiders QB Derek Carr practices Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was able to practice Wednesday despite dealing with an illness.

"I got here early to work out and see how I would feel during that and after that and I felt pretty good," Carr said at a press conference Wednesday. "So, felt good at practice today, obviously not 100 percent but it felt good to practice and be out here."

Carr has been able to start every game for the Raiders this season, completing 58.6 percent of his passes while racking up 3,112 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Raiders are a 14-point underdog in Denver in Week 17.


Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman practices in full Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman was able to practice in full Wednesday for the first time since suffering a left foot injury on Nov. 9, ESPN.com reports.

"We've had a chance to watch him all week, participate and he's obviously further ahead than he was this time a week ago," head coach John Fox said after Wednesday's practice. "And the fact we're on grass, not on Astroturf, lot of variables, but I like what I see."

Hillman has been able to practice in a limited fashion during the last two weeks but hasn't been active on gameday since the injury occured. The Broncos are a 14-point favorite at home against the Raiders in Week 17.


Falcons RB Steven Jackson (quad) expected to miss Week 17
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Falcons running back Steven Jackson (quad) is not expected to play in Sunday's Week 17 matchup with the Panthers, ESPN.com reports.

Jackson missed practice Wednesday and the team promoted running back Jerome Smith from the practice squad. Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman are expected to share the workload in the critical regular-season finale if Jackson is indeed sidelined.

The Falcons are a 4-point favorite at home against the Panthers.


49ers RB Carlos Hyde still sidelined
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) 49ers rookie running back Carlos Hyde missed practice again Wednesday with an ankle injury. He sat out Week 16 and appears likely to miss Sunday's game against Arizona, too.

With Hyde out, veteran Frank Gore went off for 158 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries against San Diego. Gore should see another big workload against the Cardinals.


Michael Crabtree doesn't sound eager to return to 49ers
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Impending free-agent receiver Michael Crabtree was asked Wednesday if he wants to return to the 49ers next season. "It depends," Crabtree said, per the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't even want to talk about it."

Crabtree is finishing up a disappointing season. He's played every game but has only 64 catches for 657 yards and four touchdowns, a far cry from the 85 grabs, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns he put up in his last full season, 2012.


Ravens LT Eugene Monroe bothered by ankle injury
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Ravens starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, who hurt his ankle Week 16 against Houston, missed practice Wednesday, reports ESPN.com. His status is uncertain for the regular-season finale at Tennessee.

If Monroe can't play, undrafted rookie James Hurst likely would start, the website said.


Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe (shoulder) unable to practice
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12/24/2014) Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe, who sprained his shoulder in last week's loss at Pittsburgh, was unable to practice Wednesday, reports ESPN.com. Bowe leads Chiefs wideouts with 57 catches for 724 yards.

Kansas City hosts San Diego on Sunday as a 3-point favorite.


 
 
 
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